Now is the time for next Farm Bill
The House Agriculture Committee recently held its first hearing of the 115th Congress. "Rural Economic Outlook: Setting the Stage for the Next Farm Bill" was the first in a series of hearings the Committee plans to hold this year as it prepares to write a new farm bill.
The hearing was an opportunity to hear from agriculture economists on the state of the farm economy. While agriculture has, no doubt, had some good years, the last several have been trending the wrong direction.
The last farm bill's safety net was written for the high farm prices farmers were receiving at the time. Unfortunately, this safety net is not adequate to deal with the economic conditions facing farmers right now.
We were fortunate that last year's tremendous yields helped to offset low prices. But I worry that if crop prices stay low and we return to an average crop, or see any changes in demand, farmers could be in for some sobering news next time they meet with their banker.
Farmers of all sizes — from younger, beginning farmers just starting out to those who have farmed the same land for generations — could feel the impact. And the simple fact is that farmers can't produce a crop without adequate financing.
Depressed farm prices have a ripple effect throughout the rural economy, which has until recently been an economic bright spot, and there are going to be calls for Congress to provide some relief. Doing so through a long term solution, with passage of a new farm bill, rather than a short term fix, is the best way to move forward. This is why I am urging Congressional leaders to act on a new farm bill sooner rather than later.
The dairy program is one particular area that we know needs to be adjusted and I plan on taking a fresh look at the way the program is structured. The current safety net is an improvement over the previous bill but sign up has been poor and there are real concerns about its effectiveness. Calls to fix the dairy program will only increase as prices continue to fall.
I'm also going to be taking a look at reforming the current Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) system and expanding program acres, while ensuring rental rates better reflect what is happening in the market. Doing so will potentially help with crop prices but it will also improve water quality and wildlife habitat.
The bottom line is that we need a new farm bill with a strong safety net, including a solid crop insurance program, to help people weather this downturn, however long it's going to last. I'm hopeful we will be able to write a bill based on what is needed in the countryside and not driven by some arbitrary budget number.
It's not going to be easy. Every farm bill I have been a part of has been more difficult to pass than the previous one. There are myriad reasons for this but, given the challenges that are sure to lie ahead, I believe 2017 is our best opportunity. I'm ready to get to work.
(Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson of Detroit Lakes is Ranking Member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee)